/  02.23.2022

We are less than two weeks removed from Super Bowl LVI, which showcased the big game’s youngest coaching matchup in history. The Los Angeles Rams’ Sean McVay, 36, went up against the Cincinnati Bengals’ Zac Taylor, 38. McVay’s Rams used a 15-play drive to score the go-ahead touchdown and secure the win, making McVay the youngest head coach to accomplish such a feat. The achievement is impressive, which brings us to another historic head-to-head for the Vince Lombardi Trophy — just in time for Black History Month.

The year was 2007 and the Indianapolis Colts were facing off with the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI. It was the Colts’ first appearance in the big game since relocating the team from Baltimore, but that was not the most significant factor. For the first time in NFL history, two Black head coaches (Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy) were duking it out for the chance to become world champions. Leading up to Super Bowl Sunday, the magnitude of the moment did not escape them. Taking it all in, Smith revealed he’d been speaking with other sports pioneers. “I know about John Thompson being the first Black coach to win the NCAA basketball tournament. I had a chance to communicate with Bill Russell a little bit this week,” he said. “He is the first Afro-American basketball coach to win an NBA title.” Dungy also spoke of how important it was for him to acknowledge those who paved the way. No matter what team had more points as the clock hit all zeros, a Black head coach would be crowned Super Bowl champion for the first time ever.

Dungy’s Colts won the game 29-17 but the impact was felt by more than just those on the field that night in Hard Rock Stadium. The waves reverberated and “meant everything” to players like Bryant McFadden who currently serves as a CBS Sports football analyst after winning two Super Bowls of his own. Another CBS analyst, former All-Pro defensive lineman Kevin Carter weighed in as well, saying, “You see yourself in all these pioneers that have come before you, and it’s a reality. It’s something you as a young man are able to wrap your mind around. What a powerful benchmark just to mark time in our lives and to show us how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go.” Although there is certainly a long way to go, Dungy reflected on the segregation his father faced as a teacher in Arlington, Va. and the progress since then. He told Fox 2 Now, “When you think about it – that’s what brought tears to my eyes after we won the Super Bowl. My dad’s first teaching job was in Arlington, Virginia, and he can’t ride on the bus, he can’t go to certain places, he can’t teach at certain schools. One generation later we win the Super Bowl and I’m invited by the president to bring our team to the White House. I’m sitting in the first seat, on the first bus — it made me laugh almost. This is what my dad was talking about. Just work, do what you were supposed to do and you’ll make a difference.” Interestingly, what seemed like a huge step in the right direction toward diversity in the league proved to be just a step with no forward progress. 15 years later, both Smith and Dungy find themselves continuing to play a large part in ongoing discussions regarding the systemic racism among NFL coaching ranks.

You see, sometimes, doing the work is not enough and Dungy is a large example of that. From 1981-1995, he served as defensive backs coach and defensive coordinator for three different teams – the Steelers, Chiefs, and Vikings. Despite coaching the Vikings to the no. 1 defense in the league as the DC in 1993, he did not receive a single interview for the seven head coach openings. The Jackson, Michigan native did not get a head coaching opportunity until 1996 when he took over an ailing Tampa Bay Buccaneers team. He was the franchise’s first Black head coach and hired Smith as defensive backs coach on his initial staff. With the installation of his “Tampa 2” defense, the Bucs went to the playoffs in four of his six seasons at the helm. Despite his success at turning the team around, he was fired and Jon Gruden won the Super Bowl the following season with the team that Dungy built. It was his termination – along with Minnesota Vikings’ Dennis Green – that sparked the creation of the Rooney Rule, which requires the league to interview minorities for head coaching and senior football operation jobs. Green had just had his first losing season in ten years.

The late great Johnnie Cochran, along with civil rights attorney Cyrus Mehri, released a study showing that black head coaches, despite winning a higher percentage of games, were less likely to be hired and more likely to be fired than their white counterparts. Specifically, the Rooney Rule now requires every team with a head coaching vacancy to interview at least one or more “diverse” candidates. More recently, the NFL has added incentives to entice clubs into diversification. In November of 2020, the league approved the following resolutions:

  • A team that loses a minority assistant coach who becomes a head coach or loses a personnel executive who becomes a general manager will receive third-round compensatory picks in each of the next two drafts.
  • A team that loses two minority staffers to head coach and general manager positions would receive three third-round picks.

In 2021, the Rooney Rule expanded again, requiring every team to interview at least two external minority candidates for open head coaching positions and at least one external minority candidate for a coordinator job. Additionally, at least one minority and/or female candidate must be interviewed for senior level positions.

How much of that is ornamental? Merely interviewing minority candidates to simply check a box is what has the league in hot water currently. Brian Flores was fired from his head coaching position with the Miami Dolphins in January after posting winning records in two of his three seasons with the team. Then, during the hiring cycle, he received a text from Patriots coach Bill Belichick congratulating him on landing the gig as the next head coach of the New York Giants. The only problem was that Belichick texted the wrong Brian; Flores had not yet gone on his interview, and the Giants had already made up their minds before interviewing any minority candidates. On February 1, Flores filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL, New York Giants, Denver Broncos and Dolphins organizations, alleging racial discrimination in the hiring practices. The Broncos and president John Elway are accused of a sham head coaching interview in 2019. Dolphins’ owner Stephen Ross is accused of bribing Flores to lose games in order to land a better draft position and encouraging the Brooklyn native to tamper with a quarterback before free agency. The lawsuit alleges that Flores’ refusal to do so led to his firing. After initially dismissing the claims as meritless, the NFL changed its tune. Commissioner Roger Goodell sent out a memo to teams that included the following:

“Racism and any form of discrimination is contrary to the NFL’s values. We have made significant efforts to promote diversity and adopted numerous policies and programs which have produced positive change in many areas, however we must acknowledge that particularly with respect to head coaches the results have been unacceptable. We will reevaluate and examine all policies, guidelines and initiatives relating to diversity, equity and inclusion, including as they relate to gender. We are retaining outside experts to assist in this review and will also solicit input from current and former players and coaches, advocates and other authorities in this area. Our goal is simple: make our efforts and those of the clubs more effective so that real and tangible results will be achieved.”

“We understand the concerns expressed by Coach Flores and others this week,” the statement continued. “While the legal process moves forward, we will not wait to reassess and modify our strategies to ensure that they are consistent with our values and longstanding commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. In particular, we recognize the need to understand the lived experiences of diverse members of the NFL family to ensure that everyone has access to opportunity and is treated with respect and dignity.”

The about-face is being viewed by Flores’ counsel as a public relations ploy. At the start of the hiring cycle, only one Black head coach remained and that was Mike Tomlin, who has never had a losing record in his 15 seasons at the helm of the Steelers. That brings forth a mantra the Black community knows all too well: “You have to be twice as good to get half as far.” Since the filing of the lawsuit, Lovie Smith has been hired by the Houston Texans after being out of the league since 2015. The Texans fired David Culley in January after just one season – one in which his franchise quarterback, Deshaun Watson, did not play one snap and the backup, Tyrod Taylor, missed multiple games due to injuries. Dungy, who shared that he had penned a letter to the NFL a year ago saying the NFL “had a problem only they could solve,” sees Brian Flores’ litigation as the tip of the iceberg.

Suing the league led many to feel that Flores would not be making a return. However, the Steelers have hired him as their senior defensive assistant/linebackers coach as the suit goes on. More recently, the four-time Super Bowl champion revealed that he refused to sign an NDA or accept the millions offered as hush money following his termination. Ironically, the NFL has hired a Black attorney, Loretta Lynch, as a part of their defense team against the lawsuit. Lynch was the first Black woman to serve as US Attorney General from 2015-2017.

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